Hotting up: how to make the best fire and how to cheat

An illustration by Elizabeth Newsham from the Little Book of Building Fires.
An illustration by Elizabeth Newsham from the Little Book of Building Fires.

Autumn’s chill is here so we look at how to build and light the perfect fire and what to do if you don’t have the time. Sharon Dale reports.

Who doesn’t love sitting by an open fire with its dancing flames, crackling wood and aromatic smoke? It’s wonderfully cosy, mesmeric and soporific.

The Little Book of Building Fires by Sally Coulthard

The Little Book of Building Fires by Sally Coulthard

Yet most of us don’t know how to build one and keep it alight, which is why “The Little Book of Building Fires” by Yorkshire author Sally Coulthard looks all set to be one of the best-selling books of the season.

It is a brilliantly informative guide with stylish illustrations and includes everything from where to find wood and which trees burn best to splitting logs, banking up and making your fire fragrant...and safe.

“In the same way that thousands of people are rediscovering the pleasure of local produce or the satisfaction of a smallholding, so too are many of us rekindling the primeval pleasure of wood fires,” says Sally. “The very act of collecting branches and chopping logs, scrunching up newspaper, building stacks and watching them burn, triggers deeply buried memories. It all just feels so familiar.

“But would you know how long logs need to be stored? Could you make your own firelighters or build a stack? Most of us love to toast our toes by an open fire but don’t know or have forgotten how to keep it alight. That’s why I wrote the book. It’s time to get back to some firecraft basics.”

A best-selling gas cassette fire from Artisan Fires, Brighouse

A best-selling gas cassette fire from Artisan Fires, Brighouse

She now lives in a farmhouse in North Yorkshire, with open fires, wood-burning stoves and a biomass boiler, plus regular bonfires outside, though she learned how to make them as child growing up in an old townhouse with open fires.

She adds: “My brother and I would also while away dry afternoons building small campfires in the garden. Our favourite game involved lighting long lengths of dried nettles, the stems of which would smoulder like a cigarette; we’d sit around the fire, holding them aloft like socialite dandies, taking the occasional puff, quickly followed by a cough and a splutter.

“As a parent I wince at the thought of my children playing with fire the way my brother and I did, but those early lessons taught me more about the anatomy and behaviour of fire than any schoolroom.”

Her book includes a chapter on wood-burning stoves. The sales of stoves have boomed over the past decade and over a million Uk households now have one.

Illustration by Elizabeth Newsham

Illustration by Elizabeth Newsham

However, according to Gary Heginbottom of Artisan Fireplaces in Brighouse, sales are beginning to tail off and those who have them are also starting to convert from wood and multi-fuel to gas stoves.

He says: “Over a period of five years, we saw the sales of wood-burning stoves grow 30 per cent each year. Everyone wanted one but while they are still popular, we have seen sales plateau. Everyone likes the idea of having one but we are seeing those who have had them for about five years beginning to exchange them or have them converted to gas. You still get a flame and the ceramic logs are very realistic.”

The reasons for this latest trend, he believes, are time and money. “Unless you have your own supply of wood, buying kiln-dried timber to burn works out more expensive than gas. Convenience though is the main factor. You can switch on a gas stove with a remote control. You don’t have to light it, stoke it up or clean it out,” says Gary who has a gas stove in his sitting room and a wood-burner in his kitchen.

His best-selling range is the gas cassette fire, which mimics the look of an open fire, with real flames behind a glass screen. They range from £1,200 to £2,500 including a fireplace and hearth and are 85 per cent efficient with only 15 per cent of the heat lost up the flue. Gas and wood-burning stoves are about 70 per cent efficient.

If you do opt for a solid fuel stove, Gary warns that you should be wary about buying a flue liner, which adds significantly to the cost.

“As long your flue is pulling, isn’t damaged, is not producing seepage into bedrooms and the loft and there is good ventilation in the room you don’t need one. Flue liners are one of the biggest cons in this industry. Eighty-five per cent of the chimneys we see don’t need one.”

*What to burn on your stove/open fire.S ally Coulthard says: “As a general rule hardwoods are denser than softwoods so provide a longer burn. They also have less resin than softwood, so they are not as prone to clog up your chimney with tar. Best for burning: ash, oak and hornbeam. Poor burners: lime and horse chestnut.

*The Little Book of Building Fires by Yorkshire-based author Sally Coulthard is published by Anima and features stylish illustrations by Elizabeth Newsham. It reveals how to build and light the perfect fire, both indoors and outside,and includes everything from sourcing and seasoning firewood and the anatomy of fire to creating scented smoke and, of course, fire safety. From campfires to woodburners, bonfires to open hearths, this hardback tome promises to put you back in touch with your ancient firemaking instincts. The Little Book of Building Fires: How to chop, scrunch, stack and light a fire is £10 and available from bookshops or online,